Rock Royalty in Portugal: Review of Nos Alive 2016, Lisbon

13/07/2016 10:23 | Updated 13 July 2016


I've been to all of England's major festivals over the years, from heavyweights Glastonbury and Reading through later metal additions Sonisphere and Download to the more civilised V Fest and Latitude. Yet only one of them, in a period of 15 years since the first (V2001), managed to remain rain-free throughout (Glasto 2010) - an anomalous week-long barrage of sunshine so rare that attendees didn't know how to handle it: wellies lay dry and unused, ambulance crews inundated with sunstroke victims.

Meanwhile, on the west corner of Portugal where capital city Lisbon overlooks the Atlantic, this kind of unending sunniness is the norm throughout summer, and doesn't come as a surprise. So when I clocked this year's lineup for the country's answer to Glastonbury I knew instantly that 2016 was the year I'd finally do it: a three-day music festival where you'll never have to traipse through mud or watch bands through a prism of falling water. And when said acts are of the ilk of Radiohead, Pixies and Tame Impala in one weekend, you know this event means business on the lineup front.

So after booking my ticket - priced a very reasonable €119 for a full three-day pass; half the price of UK counterparts - off I flew to this historical European capital to pop my continental festival cherry.


With central Lisbon and some of Europe's best beaches only a short drive away, NOS Alive (formally Optimus Alive) is the kind of festival where you party all night - and the Portuguese certainly know how to - then subathe all day, or go sight-seeing if you've the stamina. Sensibly the gates open at 4pm and first bands start around 5pm, so most of the music is enjoyed in the balmy dusk of evening through to pre-dawn.

So, armed with my wristband and the first of countless cold beers, I entered the arena to witness the opening day unfold.


The first band I saw was Ayrshire prog-core trio Biffy Clyro, who initially stood motionless for a few moments as they surveyed the scene, frontman and drummer topless to soak up the last of the afternoon's rays. They then thundered into two brawny tracks from new album Ellipsis, released that very day, before airing the more famous cuts from a now extensive back catalogue. A few Saltire-waving Scots punctuated the crowd, but it's the local majority to whom Simon Neil issued a heartfelt "obrigado" before bassist James suggests they play all night until stage-closers the Chemical Brothers, an idea that goes down well with onlookers.


With the sun setting over the ocean next to the main stage, it's rock statesman Robert Plant who next takes to the platform to an almighty roar. Backed by his Sensational Shapeshifters, he commences a winding journey through reworked Led Zeppelin standards and newer compositions. My only complaint was that acoustic tracks like Babe I'm Gonna Leave You meandered longer than necessary, the softer melodic strains wafted around too much by the coastal breeze. But it doesn't matter that much when the band can then so casually blow everything out of the water with canon classics like Black Dog and Whole Lotta Love, Plant mocking his advanced years by still hitting most of those notes.


As happens at most major festivals there'll be unavoidable clashes, which tonight saw my recent favourite artist John Grant unfortunately supplanted by Plant, and shortly afterwards Wolf Alice trumped by alt-rock behemoths Pixies who I'd still not yet seen live. When they strolled onto the stage and opened with Bone Machine and Wave of Mutilation I felt instantly vindicated. However, despite the epicness of the occasion I couldn't help but intermittently teeter on the edge of boredom when the band's 29-track set veered into festival-unfriendly obscure rarity territory. But just when it appeared some of the crowd where drifting away the second wind arrived on the back of Caribou and Debaser to solidly square things back up.


The following day, after early dalliances with Aussie outfits Jagwar Ma (above) and Courtney Barnett on the second stage, I planted myself back in the main arena for one of the best consecutive lineups I've witnessed in recent years.

First up, Foals get started on proving why they're fast approaching headliner status over their usual secondary position on the bill, with helmsman Yannis striving to get the crowd going not just with a boisterous performance but with between-song banter that was lacking from Pixies' set the previous night. The drummer also chipped in with his pro-EU t-shirt striking a note of international harmony, at a festival unexpectedly embodying continental unity in a post-Brexit Europe.


It seems like the final notes of Foals' bone-shaking set-closers Inhaler and What Went Down are still reverberating when Aussie quintet Tame Impala emerge onto the same stage to strike their own notes of harmony, in the form of their trademark lush neo-psychedlia which today induces the impromptu effect of spectators removing their tops whenever the main screen's camera catches them, something frontman Kevin Parker is amused to observe and happy to encourage. The summery cuts of the band's last two albums, Lonerism and Currents, convey perfectly beneath the setting Iberian sun, and further consolidate their festival credentials.

The highlight of the night, and the whole weekend, however, was without doubt the return to Lisbon of Radiohead, who headlined here in 2012 and this year arrive on the crest of A Moon Shaped Pool. With what seems like every festival attendee now present, the entering Oxon band punctures the rapt anticipation with Pool's opening single Burn the Witch, delivering to the vast mob exactly what they want. There follows four more album tracks, which don't hit quite the same spot, but the bonfire sparks back into life with My Iron Lung, Exit Music and Reckoner, culminating with a mass Street Spirit singalong before the band leave and re-emerge for their first encore, crowned by evergreen Paranoid Android and an ethereal rendering of Nude.


It's the unexpected second encore that seals what was already an epic headlining performance, with the seemingly impromptu inclusion of Creepand a set-closing Karma Police that leaves the crowd singing its final refrain into the night air after Thom and co have exited for good.

There was a palpable comedown for the final day, with not much on the bill to rejuvenate proceedings before Arcade Fire brought the curtains down with a gladdeningly well-executed, uplifting set comprising mainly hits and fan-favourites, from 2004's Wake Up to 2013's Reflektor, the former triggering a communal display of arm-waving that would've wafted the clouds away if there were any. Then the customary set-pieces of large mirrors suspended from the stage roof and dancing giant-headed doubles injected a bit of frivolity into the farewell vibe, before an explosion of confetti gave everyone the closest taste of rain that they're ever likely to receive at this festival.


And on that concluding meteorological note, it's plain to see why NOS Alive has become one of the most popular in Europe, a complete sell-out this year, and with lineups that manage to continually match, if not surpass, the previous year's.

If they can pull it off again for 2017's fixture I'll be back with the delirious enthusiasm of Portugal's football fans, whose national team scored their Euro 2016-winning goal no sooner had I touched back down at Heathrow Airport. If that's not a good omen I don't know what is.

7-9 July 2016,

Words & photos by Kris Griffiths